Separate Doors

     I was gassing up at the 7/11 the other day. It was 2 degrees and the wind was blowing. It hurt. As I stood there, hand on the nozzle, a teenager came out of the store.
     He was every mom’s nightmare: hair dyed in four colors, cut with a razor here and garden shears there. Rings and staples in his face. Ridiculous pants and a T-shirt. No jacket, of course. Wind chill 30 below.
     He headed to his heap, then stood there, in the howling wind, and watched the door of the convenience store. The wind was blowing against it, holding it open. He watched and watched, then went back to the door and closed it.
     What a good guy.
     I love Vermont.
     Kids are still polite here.
     One reason the world is in such sad shape, I am sure, is that people are packed like rats in cities.
     Mere pressure of population makes mammals act in peculiar ways – none of them good.
     I could mention the studies in which lab rats died, for no apparent reason, just because they were packed too closely to too many other lab rats. But there’s no reason to mention the studies. It’s obvious.
     People go crazy just from the pressure of having so many other people around them.
     People also go crazy, of course, from being so alone.
     But being alone, pressed by a crowd, is far worse than just being alone.
     Trust me on this.
     Life in a small town – even if the small town is an entire state – has drawbacks. It also has saving graces.
     I’ve lived and worked in Chicago, New York and Boston, in 11 states and Mexico. Life in Vermont reminds me of nothing so much as, of all things, the six years I spent on an Indian reservation in Arizona.
     You can’t fake it in a small town. Well, you can fake it, but everyone will know you’re faking it. Because everyone knows who you are.
     That’s one reason why kids in Vermont are so polite. Because if that kid had left the door open at the 7-11, word would have got around. And despite all of the societal and personal pressures that made him staple his face, that boy does not want to develop a reputation of being impolite. So he went back and closed the door.
     I liked living in New York City, long ago, trying to make it as a musician. Packed into my cubicle like a rat. I had no idea who my neighbors were, in that long hall on Tiemann Place.
     One day I got home at the same time as my neighbor across the hall. I had never seen her. She jumped like a nervous rat into her own box as she saw me approach.
     That was 38 years ago and I still remember it, though I do not remember her face. I just remember her fear.
     Fear of what?
     Of her neighbor. Her anonymous neighbor. Of a guy whose door was less than 8 feet away from hers, who slept in a bed 60 feet away from her every night, and whom she never met, never would meet, and didn’t want to meet, even as we went into our separate doors.
     The late Kurt Vonnegut, whose novels throughout his long life were sneered at by The New York Times, wrote that human beings’ basic problem is that we are lonely. Kurt knew what he was talking about.
     The reason that kid closed the door at the 7/11 is because he knew he is not alone. That there is a community around him who knows who he is. A small community, sure. A community not as big or important as New York City, maybe, but a community nonetheless.
     Maybe the United States is just too big to be a community anymore. Or maybe a lot of big and important people just aren’t trying. They have their own communities, and people to hold doors for them.

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